Emerald Isle

The Saint and the Dragon

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

The Defeat of the Cailleach

As Saint Patrick travelled across Ireland, spreading Christianity and the light among the pagan tribes, he saw many wonders and defeated many evils, but always more rose up to challenge him. So he took himself to prayer and saw a vision that he should travel to Croagh Patrick – although it was not known so at that time – and spend the Lenten fast in prayer on its summit.

And when he first set sandalled foot upon the slopes, the evil will that opposed him knew its danger! The old druids called her Caorthannach, or Caoránach, or some say Corra today, whose worship may have been brought here by the sorcerous Tuatha Dé Dannan after their wanderings amongst the Greeks and on the arid plains of Anatolia, where first walked monsters.

Others know her by the name of Cailleach, and the Romans called her Cybele, the Magna Mater, Mother of the gods, who claimed birth and death to herself, and the wild things of sharp tooth and claw.

The Cailleach was a true terror, an antediluvian entity who had cackled and danced through the ponderous forging of the earth, sleeping deep in the nighted caverns and deadly crushing depths, awaiting only the coming of humanity to awaken and work its mischief. Even, some say, it was the mother of satan himself, the serpent and sign of great mystery to the heathens who built dolmens from Galway bay to the farthest eastern shores of the peaceful ocean.

For long aeons after her awakening the mother of demons troubled the children of mankind, and her own children did worse, being strange demons and monsters, Nephilim, spirits and gibbering things that lodged in the minds of rulers and let them astray. Some demanded worship, the better to corrupt pure hearts, and some simply wrought ruin for the malicious delight of it. All were plagues and pestilences, thieves and usurpers, murderers and liars of varying degree.

And so when Saint Patrick trod on the mountain that she had taken as her palace, it was as the ringing of a clear silver bell in silence, and she knew fear herself for the first time in her long existence, fear that she might finally be called to account! And well the Cailleach might be afraid.

Some way to the north of Croagh Patrick was Lough Derg, although it wasn't known as such then, and it was the very place she had slept for so long, her home and some say a gateway into hell itself!

As Patrick prayed with all of the fervour, grace and faith God would grant him, so did the Cailleach shake and send her feared servants, the Sluagh, to slay him.

The Sluagh were the wild hunt who took the souls of all that crossed their path, although some said they had a particular taste for the living spirits of those who have found true love. And from them even death itself was no release, for the souls they captured joined them on their hunt, spiralling throughout the lands of Ireland and further abroad on that darkest of nights, Samhain.

In the form of a vast flock of black ravens twined about with undulating shadows they came, and yet upon closer inspection the great birds looked more like wretched thin shades of their previous selves, with gnarled talons like the blackthorn's boughs for hands and feet, and wings of dusty smoke.

They came upon Patrick in his prayers and fasting, and set to tearing at him and rending his clothes and flesh, seeking to take him away with them into the depths of Lough Derg, a great cloud of black birds.

But Patrick was untroubled, and prayed to the Lord for help, and help he got!

A great wind arose and swept from the top of Croagh Patrick like a mighty net, catching up things seen and unseen, the wild hunt along with it, and in the form of a towering whirlwind carried them out to sea where they were cast upon the waves, sinking into the depths to hold their counsels forever more amid lost cities which heeded them not, buried under mud.

The Cailleach was near caught up herself, but the wily old hag was strong and fought herself free, being deposited before Saint Patrick on the top of the mountain, rearing up in the shape of a fiery dragon, with breath as hot as the fires that forged the very earth.

For two days and two nights they struggled in that place, with prayer and spell, faith and fury, sacred litanies against the curses of wizards from lands long gone to dust, until at last the Cailleach was beaten and toppled from the mountain top to flee with all haste to Lough Derg. Some say he struck her with his black bell to drive her down the slope.

The good Saint wasn't going to let she who had caused the ruin of many escape ruin herself, so he leaped atop a horse and gave chase!

As she fled, the Cailleach knew that for all his Divine favour, Patrick was still only a man and would grow thirsty from the chase, and so she spat her deadly fiery venom into every well and body of water they passed. Onwards they raced by night and by day, the demon and the saint, but Patrick was almost ready to collapse by the time they had reached Leitrim.

He prayed to the Lord to give him a drink, and at that moment his horse stumbled and he fell off, knocking his head on the ground, and where his head touched the soil, a spring appeared. He drank deeply and with gratitude, and as his senses cleared he knew where the old worm would go. Nowhere else but back to her lair at Lough Derg! So there he went to lay in wait.

At last the Cailleach showed up, thinking she'd left Patrick far behind, but he sprang from the top of a rock onto her back as she entered the lake, and battle was joined again! Fierce was the fight, and none can say how long it lasted, but eventually the Cailleach or Caorthannach swallowed him whole.

Not deterred, Patrick tore his way out of her stomach with the ironshod point of his crozier, staining the lake waters red, which is why the lake is called Lough Derg or the Red Lake today. Sorely wounded and weakened, the demon came at him again, but he spoke a word of faith and she was lifted with such power that when she slammed down, the whole lake was emptied of water and the land about was inundated for months after.

And there to this day the Cailleach still writhes, bound and harmless, as long as the people of Ireland keep their faith and to their prayers.

But there are those who hold that her spawn still walk the earth, not least the devil himself, and still seek to free her to beget more of their brethren, and that at certain times of the year, she can rise to the surface to hiss her futile curses at the sky once again.

“But in the time of storm, when thunder is rolling, and lightning flashing and frightening away the dark night, then the serpent is allowed to rise and take its sport on the surface; and when by any chance man at this time pass that lonely water, they see the serpent riding the waves like a wild horse with a flowing mane; the froth boiling away from his sides, and all is terrible entirely.”

Lough Derg can be viewed on the map below:


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Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore